Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Petty treason is, in English common law, any betrayal of a superior by a subordinate. It differs from the better-known high treason in that high treason can only be committed against the sovereign. This law has fallen into desuetude, and petty treason ceased to be a distinct offence from murder in 1793.
Examples of crimes that would come under the heading of "petty treason" would be a wife killing her husband, a cleric killing his ecclesiastical superior, or a servant killing his master or mistress. The element of betrayal is the reason why this crime was considered worse than an ordinary murder; medieval and post-medieval society rested on a framework in which each person had his or her appointed place and such murders were seen as threatening this framework. Many people had somebody subordinate to them and feared the consequences if the murder of superiors was not punished harshly.
The most common form of petty treason was a wife murdering her husband and, up until the abolition of this form of punishment, husband-murderers were burned at the stake. The law offered a modicum of mercy to women who were to be executed in this fashion: the executioner was equipped with a cord passed around the victim's throat and, standing outside of the fire, would pull it tight, strangling her before the flames could reach her. In a few instances, things went wrong, with the cord burning through and the victim burning alive; the ensuing scandals were part of what led to the abolition of this punishment and its substitution by hanging.
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